In our supercharged, connected world, employees tow the brand front line like never before, and they're armed with the tools to reach people directly and in select groups. In turn, customers, prospects, and others expect that the brands they favor are readily accessible and available at the time of their choosing, via the channel of their choosing.
Now Starring Your Brand
Whether attending a webinar, completing a survey, or reading a tweet, prospects and stakeholders are receiving, absorbing, and responding to branded messages by employees that represent a company. Employees are charged with the responsibility of serving and honoring the brand both in the tranquil homeland (among satisfied customers) as well as in unknown territories (among new markets and prospects yet to be converted).
With greater capabilities for direct access (frequency and channel variety) between a host of internal employees (not just Marketing!) and the public at large, it's no surprise that precious little of a company's useful communication penetrates the minds of intended targets. Too much marketing is flying around, and folks get desensitized. Plus, people have filters and knobs available to them to mute the noise as their needs and preferences evolve.
Most of that stuff you and your marketing team painstakingly produce is unclicked, unopened, and unnoticed. Your targets are simply overwhelmed by the volume and unmoved by the messages. The most meaningful contact or inquiry often originates with the target—but that doesn't lessen her desire or need for clear, unified messaging that is consistent with what she already knows of your brand.
It's Not You (It's the Mixed, Disjointed Messages You Send Me)
The lesson? Marketers must resist the urge to overcome target customers' resistance via an attack of message velocity or trials of shiny objects. More communication does not translate into more effective communication. Instead, regroup. Learn to penetrate the communication haze with stronger, more-unified messaging that stands up to the multichannel test by reinforcing your brand position with every copy point and content product, offline and online.
Be more intentional in your communication.
Maintaining focus is the key, but that's hard to do. Channel proliferation and distributed ownership of the brand (think beyond marketing manager to community specialist, customer care manager, and other roles) mean that outbound communication could get fuzzy... fast.
Are You Helping or Hurting Your Brand?
In a Marketing News article (PDF), Jack Trout revisited the topic of positioning—specifically, how your brand is differentiated in the minds of your prospects. In his teachings, positioning is communicated in a variety of ways across our senses, from visual design and packaging to utility documents, language libraries used by call centers, marketing collateral, and beyond. Collectively, the touch received at each of those (and other) points of contact build on and reinforce one another when written, design, style, and experiential elements are all in synch.
Said another way, with every touch, a brand can incrementally build a position that solidifies ownership of a particular attribute. Imagine a tower of carefully placed wooden blocks leading straight up, for example. Alternatively, at those same touch points, a brand may (however inadvertently) vary its claims, significantly alter its tone, or make some other departure that doesn't resonate as well. In that scenario, the wooden blocks aren't square; they're off-balance, making the tower unstable and likely to tumble.
Lining up those blocks seems simple. In agencies, teams talk about making sure tactical executions such as direct mail, sales material, and advertising "hang together" as a family, but many brands stumble in achieving such unity.
Internal communication silos, operational department structures, and subjective decision-making by executives with personal agendas can hinder the "oneness" of a brand's position, fracture its voice, and lead to one-off communication pieces that do little to add to the incremental stability of the tower.
With so many elements working against the likelihood that your brand will leave the desired imprint, marketers need to be much smarter about what they produce and put into circulation. Every point of contact—from boilerplate-contract email signatures to banners in support of the Little League—need to reinforce the position you wish to own in your category. After all, "words are the key to brand building," as Al and Laura Ries wrote in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.
Caution: Do Not Overfill
In their seminal book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (2001), Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote that contrary to the "what we have here is a failure to communicate" bromide, the problem marketing practitioners really face is an abundance of communication. "We send more and receive less," the authors pointed out.
In the book, the duo likens the human mind to a sponge that's fully saturated and can soak up more information only at the expense of what's already there. Yet, we marketers persist in our approach, in valiant (if misguided) attempts to overcome our failure to break through. We continue producing more e-newsletters, direct mail pieces, and webinars.
Do we really need to communicate more frequently with our targets? Or, do we need to do so more intelligently, with a voice easily identified and associated with our brand (PDF), and via the media channels our targets are most comfortable with?
Please, Don't Confuse the Humans
The human mind seeks to make connections between data it already has and incoming pieces of data. When an incoming piece doesn't easily match a known chunk that's already catalogued in the mind, the value of the new piece of data drops significantly. If the mind has to work too hard to build a connection, it may even filter out the new data completely.
That means brand-side marketers need to take the following steps:
- Simplify everything. You've heard it before. Substitute plain language for four-dollar words. Break long sentences into short, succinct ones. Keep the focus of the message narrow, providing the minimal amount of background or setup necessary to establish suitable context.
- Remove ambiguity. Avoid using internal naming conventions, jargon, overly technical language, and other word tactics that generally obfuscate an idea or suggestion. (Don't put your sales sheets on par with an IRS publication.) Don't frustrate, confuse, and irritate readers by not making an effort to write for them.
- Master continuity. Some channels (such as Twitter) require brevity and task the reader to "read between the lines." We get it; the challenge is both part of the experience and the allure. Other channels (such as LinkedIn) have fewer restrictions on message length, creating certain expectations for behavior and acceptable discussion topics. For example, few people mention their toasted almond salad in LinkedIn groups or their status updates.
The myriad channels and seemingly endless rules of the road complicate communication somewhat, but a well-planned and descriptive style guide can establish repeatable standards and patterns for every form of media and audience tier—a style guide every customer-facing employee can follow. Consistency not only minimizes risk but also reinforces image and position, too.
- Common vocabulary. Stakeholder interviews, survey responses, customer service calls, emails, and a host of other sources can provide clues to how your target audiences want to talk about what you have to offer. By adjusting your messaging (your copy and how you present it) to support customer preferences, you demonstrate a customer-first attitude that wins—and keeps—business.
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Our always-on, hyper-connected culture makes it easy to get in touch. Apps and mobile platforms enable people to perform complex processes while riding the bus. Take care that those modern communication miracles don't lull you or your team into complacency. Don't abandon the fundamentals in search of the latest thing. Copy and messaging standards are actually more valuable to marketing communications strategy than ever before.